Pope Joan

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The legend of the female pope is virtually impossible to substantiate historically. The story says that she had travelled Europe, disguised as a monk, and that her great learning and piety led to her becoming a cardinal in Rome and finally being elected Pope in around 855 under the name John VIII. It is said that she was discovered in 857 when, in procession on the way to St. Peter’s, she went into labour and gave birth to a child at the roadside. Some endings say that mother and child died there; others that she was stoned to death and others that she was sent away to a convent with her child. The Catholic Church itself denies any mention of a female Pope and gives a history of John VIII as ruling from 872 – 882. In recent times, Pope Joan has become a feminist icon and she appears as a character in Caryl Churchill’s play ‘Top Girls’ as well as in a novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross, in addition to numerous historical studies and a film made in 1972.

Duffy gives her own voice to Pope Joan in her poem as she imagines being in such a position as a woman. "After I learned to transubstantiate/unleavened bread/into the sacred host" This is the mystery at the heart of the Catholic faith, which believes in ‘transubstantiation’ i.e. that the bread and wine are changed in essence, not in form, into the body and blood of Christ during the Mass. This not something ‘learned’ in fact, but a power conferred on every priest at their ordination. It is believed to descend in direct line from Jesus, who gave this power to his apostles at the last supper, just as the Popes are said to descend in a direct line

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